A love letter to West Virginia two months after the flood

Debris from the floods.

[Editor's note: the two-month anniversary of the devastating West Virginia flooding was August 23rd.]

I dreamt I was in a house floating down the river. Water rushed up the stairway as if gravity had been reversed. I swam up those stairs, pulling myself by the railing through thick muddy water to a room where a childhood friend and her five-year-old daughter stood in the corner. The house hit a steep bank, or maybe it was the mountain-side. We climbed out the upstairs window and watched the house slowly sink as if floated down stream.

I dreamt I was changing a flat tire. I slowly jacked my car up, higher and higher until it teetered unsteadily. But when I opened the door dark and stinking water poured out with an intensity that seemed impossible, as if the source of the Greenbrier River itself came from beneath the seats.

But it wasn’t the rivers that created the bulk of the devastation in the June flooding in West Virginia this year – it was the creeks. Creeks that never flood. Houses that aren’t in the flood plain got washed downstream. Houses with not even a stream in sight had rivers flowing through their yards.

*

I’ve been thinking a lot about who gets to tell which stories – in particular who has the right to tell stories of disasters, mass violence, or trauma? Part of this thinking comes out of the past year spent studying Folklore. Folklore scholarship from the past few decades has owned up to its more extractive and colonial past, and many folklorists today are doing incredible work to redefine what folklore is, and are working collaboratively with communities to document and celebrate expressive culture. But those older histories linger, and they continue to influence folklorists’ present – as complicated histories always do.

My family isn’t from West Virginia. We moved there when I was two, and this means I will always be a transplant. Still, I learned early about the legacy and effects of the gazes of academics and journalists upon those mountains I call home, and the people who live there who I call friends and neighbors. And so, I do not underestimate the power of telling a story, the responsibility that comes with it, and the messiness of claiming a story that is not your own – especially a story of trauma.

Another part of my hesitation to write about the flood was born from this summer of death. Tragedy upon tragedy has rushed down upon us – a flash flood of hate and violence and too many voices. It seems like everyone has something to say about Orlando, about the presidential campaigns, about the police murders of Black people and about the police who were murdered themselves. Unfortunately, the voices of those most directly impacted by all of this racist and homophobic hate and violence are often the hardest to hear over all the noise. Noise created by the speculation of those who would do better to listen.

So how do I ethically write about the devastating flooding in the county where I was raised though my home/pets/belongings/garden/farm/car/life/family members were not lost in those churning caramel-colored waters? How do I write about a disaster that my own privileged upbringing saved me from experiencing on the front lines? For this flood taught me much about the geography of wealth in my home county – it was blatantly obvious who lives on higher ground. Do I get to write about it if I was only there for 5 days during and after the flood in late June, and two weeks in August?

And all of that aside, how do I even write coherently about something that has wreaked havoc upon roads and towns, economies and bodies and psyches of a generation of young people in these hills – many of whom were already grasping at thin straws of hope? How too, do I write about a flood two months passed – though its impact is as real today as it was the day the rain would not stop falling – while parts of Louisiana and Texas face the same disasters over again.

I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I can’t abandon my home as the national news has. I can’t move onto the next new disaster, because my home is still wading through the recovery from a disaster two months gone that hasn’t yet ended.

*

I drove West on I-64 into West Virginia as the flood waters crested. I was on my way home for a weekend visit, aching to swim in the river and pick blueberries, to walk in the woods and visit with friends and family. It was Thursday June 23rd. Water roared across the interstate. The medians and shoulders had turned into wide angry rivers. Mud and debris washed over the road. Fire trucks blocked lanes. I barely made it home before they shut down the interstate.

I knew that there was flooding. I had been getting frantic messages from my Mom as my four-hour drive home from North Carolina grew longer in the torrential rains near Roanoke. I knew roads had already been closed. But how do you fathom something like that until you’ve lived through it? Violent rivers tearing through hollows where there isn’t even a spring or stream? Houses in the town where you worked for two years floating down the river on fire?

Cars lined the side of the interstate at the White Sulphur Springs exit, nowhere to go at the end of the ramp except for into those waters. Just past the exit I picked up a young man running down the side of the interstate in the pouring rain. I still didn’t understand. I still hadn’t seen the water. He was 18 at the oldest. Frantic, on the brink of sobbing, out of breath. I asked stupid questions like, “Where is your car?”

“I couldn’t get back to it,” he told me.

I don’t usually pick up strange men on the side of the highway when I’m driving by myself, especially near dark. I was still trying to piece together his story to assure myself that he really needed help, that he wasn’t sketchy. This is an awful thing to admit to.

He told me his fifteen-year-old brother was alone at the house, that his mom and dad were at work. He hadn’t heard back from his brother since he had called to say the first floor was flooding and he was going upstairs. He hadn’t heard back from his dad either, who was trying to get back to the house to save the boy.

We passed the next exit, Caldwell: the exit I took to get to work every Monday and Tuesday for two years when I worked two days a week at White Sulphur Springs Elementary and the other three days at Western Greenbrier Middle School on the other end of the county, which was also devastated by floods. The gas stations and fast food restaurants were under water. The stop sign at the bridge was under water. Cook’s Restaurant - which I still call Granny’s because that was its name when it was the only diner on this end of the county where you could get breakfast when you were hungover after a party in high school - was under water.

“Shit!” I kept saying, and then apologizing to him for cussing. “This is really bad.” He nodded, no hint of annoyance at my failure to understand the gravity of the situation until I saw it with my own eyes. A mile down the road I dropped him off on the side of the interstate where he asked me to. He apologized for getting my seat wet. He told me he didn’t have any cash or he’d give me some money for gas.

This is one of the most “West Virginia” moments of the whole flood for me: this young man, who was in the process of losing everything, still wanted to offer something in return for a short ride. I asked him please not to worry about it. I told him I hoped his brother would be ok. He swallowed a sob and nodded as he closed the door. I thought about how dumb it was I hadn’t asked him his name. He ran across the interstate in the downpour as the daylight faded, jumped the guard rail, and disappeared into the dark woods.

Three days later, while serving food at the community kitchen that came together in White Sulphur on the Saturday after the flood - when people rolled their grills down to a parking lot in town from higher yards that weren’t flooded, and others brought everything from their freezers for us to cook before it went bad – I started asking around, trying to learn anything I could about who this young man might have been. I learned from his aunt that he and his siblings and mother survived, but that his father was swept away in the flood. And that they had lost everything they owned including their home and their cars.

I saw parents of kids I had worked with. Parents whose homes I had delivered boxes of food to from the church food pantry on a “normal” week – who had lost everything. But the thing about disasters of this scale, is that even people who lost their home, all of their belongings, their car, and their pets feel grateful to be alive. Lucky. Feel like they have no reason to complain.

Up in Lewisburg, where my Mom lives the power came on after one day, but the whole county remained under a boil water advisory, and requests from the mayor to conserve water lasted for days and days. In the towns hit hardest by the flood - White Sulphur, Rupert, and Rainelle not to mention other towns in other counties across the state like Richwood and Clendenin – there was no power or water for weeks.

*

Media sources reported that 23 people were dead and/or missing throughout the state in the days after the flood, but if you were there that number felt inaccurate. In Greenbrier County, where 15 of the total deaths in the state were reported, there was the constant sound of sirens. There were search parties with cadaver dogs. They drained the ponds at The Greenbrier Hotel to search for bodies. They found new bodies every day. They found them in cars that had sunk to the bottom of the river. In houses. They found them miles and miles and miles downstream from where they had lived. They found them in trees. Others they couldn’t find anywhere, despite endless searching.

*

I left West Virginia five days after the flood. I drove to Ohio to see family there. In the shower at my sister’s house I turned the water on as hot as it would go, turned my face up into its stinging needles. I opened my mouth, let the water fill it up, let it run over. There was no need to fear the water there. No need to conserve it. There was no reason to worry that propane from the tanks that bobbed in the now receding waters of the Greenbrier was pouring into my mouth, that waste from the dozens of sewage lines that busted in the flood was pouring into my mouth, that the waters which held the unfound bodies of drowned dogs and cats, farm animals, and people was pouring into my mouth. There was no reason to think about any of it. And I tried to burn it out of my brain with that hot, hot water, but it just got louder, more vivid, until finally I turned off the water and watched it swirl, clean and clear, down the drain.

*

A month later I came back to West Virginia. I learned that they found the body of a woman who lived up the road from the farm where I was raised over 30 miles away from her home on July 2nd. Her body traveled down the creek that runs by her house and into the Greenbrier River, before continuing downstream for miles. It would have taken an hour to drive the distance between her home and Caldwell, WV where her body was found.

I hadn’t been able to find a list of names of those who died until I came back to West Virginia. I spent two years working in public schools in the communities in Greenbrier County that were hardest hit by this flood. I have laid awake nights in North Carolina, especially on nights when the rain pounded the tin roof of my house, watching face after face of the kids I worked with scroll through my head on repeat: no idea if they and their families survived, no way to find out.

When I finally found that list I learned that the father of a girl I worked with died in the flood. She had already lived through more hardship than I have though she’s half my age. And now this too.

*

Search groups had been looking for fourteen-year-old Mkayla Phillips of White Sulphur Springs for over 40 days when her body was found buried in a pile of flood debris near Caldwell, WV on August 9th. My mother and I passed through Caldwell twice in one day on our way to swim in a creek in a national park in Virginia. The rivers still feel too full of death to swim in since the flood.

Summer in this part of West Virginia—where our waters haven’t been polluted by extractive industries yet—is about the rivers. Our economies depend on our rivers. Our joy is found in their waters. We cool off there to keep from losing our minds when it gets too hot. My Mom and I aren’t the only people avoiding the rivers this summer. They are mostly empty. Tourists from across the country are cancelling trips. Businesses that depend on summer tourism are struggling.

On the drive to and from the creek in Virginia we passed through a narrow valley along the creek just north of Caldwell. We passed by the house that I think belonged to the family of the young man who I picked up on the side of the interstate that June evening. It’s nothing you could call a home anymore, just the shell of a house. We passed by his neighbor’s house too.
I used to drive through there in the mornings on my way to work. Two gorgeous German Shepherds would run back and forth inside the chain link fence that circled the yard. The fence was gone. The dogs too.

My mom told me that FEMA deemed the owners’ of that house ineligible for assistance, so they will have to clean it up themselves, on their own dime, and try to keep on living there. She told me there is seven feet of mud inside their house. I can’t stop wondering what happened to those dogs.
Two days after we drove through there, they found the body of Mkayla Phillips. I learned that the pile of debris where they found her was just up the road from these same houses.

*

The day after they found her body everyone was talking about it. It hovered over the county like thick smog. Most of the news these days of the flood is passed around through Facebook, not newspapers or websites. Much of it is local and word of mouth. My mom told me that the owner of the dog who found her posted a picture of his blood hound sitting on top of a pile of mud and trees, trash and unidentifiable debris. The dog owner had written a caption that read, “She’s here, Dad.”

I was visiting all day, trying to catch up with the people I love before I disappear again into my second year of grad school. I was visiting friends and neighbors who are ageing, who are facing the certain death that waits at the end of a long sickness. I feel so guilty when I’m not in West Virginia: like I’ve abandoned the people that I love, like I’ve walked out on the mountains like so many West Virginians who’ve gone before me looking for jobs, for educational opportunities, for a way to survive. It is a constant nagging when I’m away. I’m not the only one; this is a mountain child’s destiny.

That evening, on the drive back to the farm where I’m staying, I turned up a mixed CD my sweetheart made me. The sun was setting and the mountains were glittering gold in the evening light. There’s nothing in the world that makes me happier than driving through WV in the summer with the windows down and the music loud. Half way through the drive track 17 came on: Beyoncé’s “Hello.” I always listen to it at least three times before moving onto the next track. It makes me smile. It makes me think of the first time I saw my sweetheart’s dimples, the first time they looked right into my eyes and grinned at me.

About 30 seconds into the song I was suddenly crying. I am a crier. I always have been. Friends and family tease me about it. But I have only cried twice since the flood, both times while talking about it, both times very briefly.

It’s as if the discovery of her body released something, let loose some tight place I hadn’t realized was there. I think that was true for a lot of people in the county. Like finally there could be some sense of closure, without this knowledge hovering in the back of your brain that there was the body of a young girl somewhere, it might be anywhere, you might have passed right by it. I can’t even imagine what the discovery of her body meant for her family.

I wept. I turned the song up as loud as it would go, and listened to it over and over again.

“Gotta feel you and be near you
You're the air that I breathe to survive
Gotta hold you, wanna show you
That without you my sun doesn't shine
You don't have to try so hard for me to love you
Boy, without you my life just ain't the same
You don't have to try so hard for me to love you.
You had me at hello!”

The thick heat poured in the windows of my car like water would; only I could breathe, only I wasn’t drowning. I sang along.

I have never really understood the desire to get married. I can’t imagine committing in that way to one person for life, especially in front of a crowd of people. But the thing that has taught me what that desire must feel like is my love for this place. West Virginia has taught me about the kind of love that doesn’t stop, that doesn’t break, that never walks out – even if you can’t always stay. A queer kind of love that can exist in complicated and surprising formations, from afar, long distance, an open love that allows room for others. A love that continues in spite of, and sometimes because of, the ugly parts as much as the beautiful parts of those mountains. This isn’t the first time a love song has come to represent my complicated feelings for the state of West Virginia, and I’m certain it won’t be the last. I hope my home state can hear me singing along.